Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Rian Johnson, USA 2017)

The Star Wars series returned in an unusual position. While it was one of the most popular and beloved series in media history, its most ardent fans also felt insulted and beaten down by years of abuse from the man who began it all. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, USA 2015) was essentially an apology for George Lucas’s crimes. As a way of showing that he was gone and his asinine qualities were gone with him, J.J. Abrams created a paint-by-numbers remake of Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope (George Lucas, USA 1977) with noteworthy improvements. The stilted acting of the original film was replaced by a cast that universally performed well. The “save the princess” plot was turned on its head, giving us a female protagonist who was even stronger than Princess Leia (Who was not anything close to the prototypical damsel in distress herself.). The comic relief was largely provided by Finn and BB8 and was never annoying or groan-worthy the way C-3PO had largely been. The effects were improved. The originality meter was very low on the film, but it worked well for what it was trying to do, and seemed to set us up for a second film that would introduce us to a real new Star Wars chapter.

I only returned to watching the Star Wars series because of my love of Rian Johnson. I think Johnson is the best director currently working in American cinema, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. When he was announced as the writer and director for the second film in the new trilogy, I was on board. And I thought he was set up to be able to bring in all of the originality that was missing from the first film.

It turns out, his marching orders were clearly something quite different from what I expected.

Continue reading

Advertisements

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Ozymandias” (05.14, 2013)

Written by Moira Walley-Beckett (Previous Episodes: “Breakage,” “Over,” “Más,” “Fly,” “Bullet Points,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Gliding over All”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly” and “Fifty-One”)

Back when I reviewed the first episode of this half-season, “Blood Money,” I wrote that, “My guess is that [Heisenberg] is able to buy enough time from Hank to get to use the disappearer but doesn’t kill Hank, leaving the case hanging over Walt as he escapes. However, Lydia is unhappy about the quality she is getting and forces Jesse into the business. Walt somehow finds out about Jesse’s position and goes back to save Jesse, hoping that it will be a final act of redemption.” As has been the case many times in this show’s history, it did end up where I thought it was obvious that it would, but the narrative took surprising twists and turns at every opportunity before getting there. Just as an example, we knew that Walt would have to get Gus out of the way back in season four and I knew it would require him to embrace the evil in himself somehow to do it, but I didn’t expect that embrace to allow him to manipulate Jesse into helping him, let alone the specifics of his poisoning of Brock and so on. This time, I was right that he was going to end up at the disappearer and that Jesse would be forced back into cooking, but I got everything that led to that state of affairs wrong.

This episode, unsurprisingly, opens with a teaser set in a different time, a teaser that is imbued with tension because we are all waiting for the outcome of the shootout from the last episode. Cleverly, the teaser actually foreshadows later events with Holly by showing us a conversation between Walt and Skyler from back when Walt first cooked with Jesse where they decide the girl’s name. It’s an interesting technique, because it should make it obvious that something is going to happen with Holly later but because we don’t really care about this conversation while we’re waiting to find out who exactly dies in the shootout, it’s not really obvious. As with all of these flashbacks, it also reminds us just how much things have changed, with the dumbass meth-head Jesse refusing to listen to the nerdy science teacher explaining the meth production process before we cut to the end of the shootout and watch hardened criminal Walt plead for Hank’s life and then Heisenberg order a sniveling Jesse’s death.

At the scene of the shootout, we see Walt pleading for Hank’s life, appealing to the idea that Hank is “family” and refusing to admit, as Hank says, that Jack has already made up his mind. It looks like the death of Heisenberg, as it is Walter White who pleads (unsurprisingly, unsuccessfully) for Hank, thinking that he has Heisenberg’s manipulative powers. However, Heisenberg returns to order Jesse Pinkman’s death, finding Jesse hiding underneath a car, just after a handshake agreement where we see Jack’s swastika tattoo featured prominently.

Then, Todd interrupts, claiming that they just want to find out what Jesse told the DEA before they kill him, though at least I immediately thought that he was taking Jesse to help cook. Jack may be happy with the quality he’s getting from Todd, but Todd isn’t—he knows what Heisenberg produced and thinks that Jesse can help him reach that level. He may be a psychopath, but he also has a level of professional pride and studiousness about his cooking that only Heisenberg and Gale have ever shared. Heisenberg, in a final act of anger toward the teenaged burnout he had long since broken, finally lets loose the secret that he watched Jane die (Though he omits the detail that he actually turned Jane onto her back, without which she would not have asphyxiated.) and then watches his former partner being taken away by the neo-Nazis.

One of the clear mysteries of the last season has been why Walt is apparently separated from his family, since he’s performing the bacon ritual without Skyler way back at the start of the season in “Live Free or Die.” I had been wondering whether there was anything that Walt could do at this point that would be a bridge too far for Skyler and drive her away, and the only even possible answer I could come up with was for him to kill Marie in order to keep her quiet, since she knows about Jesse at this point. It turns out what finally turned her against Walt wasn’t Walt or even Heisenberg but Walter Jr., who turns her against her husband by saying, “If this is all true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.” She acts like it’s the revelation that Walt killed Hank that sets her off, but she surely would not have reacted by fighting him off before hearing her son say that.

Then we see Jesse’s fate. In a harrowing and beautifully-shot sequence, Todd drags a beaten and bloodied Jesse out of a cell in the ground into his lab and chains him to the ceiling with a picture of Brock and Andrea prominently displayed as a constant warning (surely a warning that carries even more weight from neo-Nazis given their race) then puts on one of the yellow suits we have seen so often and says, “Let’s cook.” Jesse is trapped helping Todd, and Todd does not know mercy. Todd would also surely be willing to kill Jesse as soon as he is no longer providing any value, and Jesse knows how sick Todd is from watching him kill Drew Sharp. In fact, Jesse saw the danger in Todd before anyone else, and we probably should have known then that Jesse’s fate was to end up trapped under Todd’s heel.

Walt then takes Holly and calls back to scare Skyler into submission as Heisenberg, giving her a terrifying speech about the dangers of crossing him even as tears run down his face at the loss of his family and perhaps even Hank’s death. Or perhaps he is mourning the loss of Heisenberg. The man who returns to Albuquerque in the future is Walter White, not Heisenberg, and this moment may have been the end of Heisenberg.

With the police in his house, his son now aware of his actions, probably every living member of his family now talking to the police, and Jesse chained up and forced to help Todd cook, he runs to the disappearer, and leaves town. With two episodes left, Heisenberg’s empire that he prides himself on telling Skyler that he built remains but nothing else he sought does. His real son and his wife have turned against him and he has turned away his own chosen surrogate.

Rian Johnson, the greatest film director working today, returns for his third episode of the series, and it is again a wonder to behold. Michelle MacLaren’s direction is so brilliant that I often say that a film would be proud to have shots that she and Michael Slovis get on this show, but Johnson’s appearances are a reminder of how much of a gap exists between even the best television director and a great film director: in addition to big things like the beautiful night-time lighting at the fire station, he imbues everything with brilliant details like the repeated use of zoom in otherwise static scenes and a simple, static shot of the empty street after Walt has driven away with Holly before returning to Skyler’s collapse. There are so many of these details that one could write an entire review just naming them, so I won’t spend too long, but the episode is perhaps the most beautiful in this show’s history, which is high praise indeed.

Overall, this episode is an excellent and harrowing climax to this point that sets up a reasonably clear finale but leaves enough questions unanswered that we can’t know everything to expect. It’s Breaking Bad at its finest yet again.

Notes

  • Walt has to be coming back to get Jesse out in a final act of “redemption,” I feel fairly certain. But it honestly seems a little strange at this point for him even to discover what’s going on with Jesse.
  • It was nice to see a Johnson regular, Noah Segan (who appeared as Dode in Brick [USA 2005] and Kid Blue in Looper [USA/China 2012]), make a small appearance as the fireman who finds Holly.
  • Who painted “Heisenberg” on the wall? It’s starting to feel like it’s going to be someone closer to home rather than just some random tweeker.
  • Where are Skyler, Walter Jr., and Holly when Walt returns to town?
  • I had a new thought about the ricin—maybe it’s actually for himself. I could see Walt seeking redemption by first saving Jesse with the machine gun and then going to Skyler for forgiveness having already taken the ricin so that she cannot turn him in.
  • Once again, given more to do, R.J. Mitte steps up. He was great in this episode, as were Anna Gunn, Jesse Plemons, and Bryan Cranston.
  • If we want to call season 5b its own season, it is surely the greatest season of television in history.

Update: I had already had the review up for a bit when I realized that I wrote the part about Walt’s phone call as though it were totally credulous and just completely forgot to say anything about the real motivation. The way he was drawing attention to her lack of knowledge and pretending to believe that the police weren’t there, and Skyler’s reaction when he drew attention to her lack of knowledge, suggest that he was actually trying to help Skyler out of the mess by making sure that the police knew it was “Me–me alone!” It wouldn’t shot me if there is at least some reality in what he is saying (Walt has often mixed truth in with his lies.) anyway, but scaring Skyler into submission is only the ostensible motive, not the real one. It’s a rare moment of humanity for Walt these days, and one of the greatest moments ever for Cranston, which is about the highest praise a moment of acting can receive.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”–“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)

“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)

Written by Sam Catlin (Previous Episodes: “Down,” “4 Days Out,” “Green Light,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Open House,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly”)

 

It’s not every TV show that can get the best film director working today to direct a few episodes. In fact, it’s exactly one TV show: Breaking Bad. My fandom of Rian Johnson is apparent just from the name of the blog, and then I’ve praised him with regularity as well.

Johnson’s presence is apparent in this episode’s visuals. It is loaded with the kind of dark but warm-toned shots that characterized much of his latest film, Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012) (my review). He also provides much more noticeable contrast lighting, even in the scenes that would not normally be terribly interesting. Notice the scene between Hank and the DEA higher-up who promotes him: it’s all full of shafts of light broken by deep shadows from the blinds, and they are carefully placed throughout the scene—on the top of Hank’s head, between the two men, etc. And of course there is the haunting, exquisitely beautiful shot of Skyler underwater in her suicide attempt, a beautiful combination of lighting and filters that no other television show would come close to. He also gives us a respite from some of the conventions, most notably the always-brilliant montages, that Breaking Bad has fallen into, which is necessary if those conventions are to maintain any power.

We finally get a specific date marker this episode in Walt’s 51st birthday, including an excellent callback to that brilliant opening when Skyler serves breakfast and Walter Jr. insists that she has to put the bacon in the shape of the number 51 because “mom has to do it—it’s like a tradition!” It draws attention to the isolation Walt must have been feeling in that opening scene, breaking the bacon in half the same way Skyler always has to spell out his age. The time marker also emphasizes that we’ve still got a year to go before Heisenberg ends up as Walter White, at Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. Considering that the entire show to this point has happened in a year, that means we have a lot of time that’s going to be covered in the second half of the season. Heisenberg’s fall is going to be swift on-screen, but not too swift in real life, and there is plenty of time for almost anything to become the threat that leads to his need for the machine gun.

Meanwhile, we get some depth to the jittery Lydia character, as Mike explains that she is dangerous and insane and passing her off as nothing more than a an overly nervous but overall harmless person is “sexist.” It’s an interesting moment for a show whose characterization of women has drawn some criticism in the past. However, within the show, it provides an important hint that there is more to Lydia than meets the eye. After all, when consummate professional badass Mike is afraid of her, there simply has to be something to worry about. It turns out that while she is cautious and panicky, she is also conniving enough that Mike actually believes that she placed a GPS tracker on their methylamine barrel in order to scare them into working elsewhere and Mike is willing to say, “She deserves to die as much as any man I’ve ever met.”

Skyler also steps up a bit in this episode. She’s been fearful with little else until now, but she, using her children as the reason (whether it’s sincere or not), is finally able to stand up a bit to Heisenberg, setting the limits of what she will and will not accept. She says that she will accept his criminal life and launder his money but does not want the children there, in danger, even throwing Heisenberg’s own words back in his face. She gets the children away and admits to desperation and an inability to find a real way to get away from him, but says that she will do whatever she can, hoping for his cancer to return and take him away. It’s an important moment for Skyler, as it’s essentially this season’s first sign of the strength she normally offers, and even that show of strength is accompanied by desperation and fear. We see exactly how trapped Skyler has become at this point. The point is also brilliantly emphasized by the actors’ movements, as she backs away from Heisenberg to all corners of the bedroom and he chases her around menacingly, but there is no screaming or actual violence. It’s a truly Hitchockian moment that Rian Johnson, Bryan Cranston, and Anna Gunn should be extroardinarily proud of.

This episode is perhaps the best of this season so far. Not only is it simply beautiful, but it advances the plot via its characters, the way Breaking Bad has usually moved in the past. This season so far has mostly seen characters and plot advance rather separately, and the tighter connection in this episode is great.

 

Notes:

  • The Aztek got essentially a Viking funeral, which was a good way of sending us into the show’s final run. It was always rather a symbol of Walter White–a hideously ugly, run-down car that
  • Much as I always love Rian Johnson, that long sequence of Heisenberg and Junior with the new Chryslers was rather silly and overdone. Chrysler more than got its money’s worth, but I hope Chrysler paid well.
  • Walt gets a trophy for his ability to manipulate Jesse: the watch Jesse gives him for his birthday. He then points out that it is really a trophy by using it to tell Skyler that the man who gave it to him recently wanted him dead. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you.”
  • Rian Johnson loves smoke as an image, so it’s great that he gets to work with Skyler for the first time now that she’s smoking regularly.
  • Betsy Brandt’s look just before she tells Hank about Skyler’s infidelity is brilliant. You can see the thoughts cross her mind: “Oh, you were ahead of me, Hank? Really? Want to bet? I promised Walt not to say anything. But, dammit, he looks so smug over there! I’m telling him!”
  • Anna Gunn is having a good season, even though Skyler White definitely is not. Hopefully, some of the hatred that has been aimed at Skyler online during the show’s run will be tamped down by her cowed, fearful existence this season, and Gunn’s performance has been heart-rending.